Yoga for People with Repetitive Strain Injury

Yoga for People with Repetitive Strain Injury

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is the leading occupational disease in the United States.  Symptoms of RSI can appear in the neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists.  RSI can be severely disabling, leading to unemployment and chronic pain or weakness.  While many Yoga postures can make the symptoms worse; Yoga, if expertly modified for the person’s injury can be enormously helpful for people with RSI.  

Most computer users are aware of the aches and pains that result from long hours at the keyboard.  Few know, however, that they could lose normal use of their hands because of this activity.  This is the reality of repetitive strain injury (RSI), a disorder affecting the entire upper extremity.  In severe cases of RSI, a person might not be able to bring a fork to their mouth without pain or have the strength to lift a cup to their lips.  Other important activities of daily living, such as holding a child, driving, turning the pages of a book, can all be difficult or impossible.  Because of the importance of hand use in daily life, soft tissue injuries to the hand present one of the greatest functional disabilities.  Thousands of people with RSI are unable to work, much less do Downward Facing Dog.  Many of these people ended up in this state because they worked at computers, typing and clicking millions of times per year, usually for a job requirement.  Many people with RSI find that certain Yoga poses exacerbate their symptoms, but when performed appropriately Yoga has the potential to support the healing process.

RSI is a highly complex soft tissue disease that can affect the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage, blood vessels, or spinal discs in the neck, shoulder, elbow, forearm, wrist, hand and fingers.  These disorders also include syndromes that refer mainly to the upper extremity.  

The term RSI can describe many specific ailments of the upper extremity (from shoulder blade to fingertip), including carpal tunnel syndrome.  Also included are epicondylitis (tennis elbow), thoracic outlet syndrome, and others.  One injury can lead to another, because of substitution patterns and people frequently have more than one diagnosis.

RSI happens gradually, over time, and in many cases disability can last indefinitely.  Western medicine has no cure for RSI, and the means for managing pain and other symptoms can have disappointing results.  Standard treatment such as physical therapy can alleviate some symptoms in the short term, but patients often relapse shortly after resuming occupational hand use.  There is no surgery for many forms of RSI, and even when indicated, surgery brings many risks.  Cortisone injections can cause tendons to rupture; splints lead to disuse atrophy and impede fluid returns.  

According to the United States Department of Labor, RSI is a leading occupational injury in the United States.  Repetitive motion, such as grasping tools, scanning groceries, and typing resulted in the longest absences from work.  The incidence of work-related injuries may be underestimated by as much as 68%.  Work-related upper extremity conditions are estimated to cause 24% of lost work time in the U.S.  According to one study, the prevalence of musculoskeletal symptoms among computer users has been reported to be as high as 76%.  The enormous popularity of handheld electronic devices such as Blackberries and iPods spurred the American Social of Hand Therapists to issue a national consumer alert warning of the danger of hand injuries caused by heavy use of these devices.

Given the many challenges RSI presents, does this mean people with hand injuries are doomed to a life of pain and disability?  No!  People with RSI can make great gains in terms of managing pain and recovering varying degrees of hand function.  Their recovery will depend on what they do for themselves.  And, this is where Yoga comes in.  A balanced Yoga practice that includes asana (Yoga postures), pratyhara (withdrawal of the senses), meditation and breathing techniques can improve function and reduce symptoms of RSI.  Yoga reduces anxiety and increases self-awareness, both important to the healing process.  

Group classes present substantial challenges for people with RSI because the risk of injury/re-injury is so great.  The pressure to keep up with others in the class can be overwhelming.  People suffering with RSI should move at their own pace and have postures modified for their disability.

Rather than merely addressing symptoms, the nature of Yoga is to go to the source of a problem.  Yoga can be a wonderful way to reduce pain and avoid injury, and achieve an overall balance in your health - body and mind.  If you have RSI, or feel you are at risk, some simple Yoga exercises and breathing techniques can be of great use to you.

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